Henagar tornado survivors want to bring hope to others

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DEKALB COUNTY, Ala. – Linda Chitwood will never forget the last conversation she had with her youngest son, Jeremy Ferguson.

“He had always called my every day to see how I was and say, ‘Mama, I love you,’ and that’s the last thing he said to me,” she said fighting back tears.

Jeremy and his family were living near County Road 85 in Henagar on April 27, 2011, when an EF-5 tornado worked its way through DeKalb County. A neighbor told Linda they were standing out in the yard watching it come. Her grandson, Bryce, was 10 years old at the time. He remembers the wind sucking him out of the house.

“I said, ‘my son is dead, but I need to see if I can go find my grandkids.'”

Linda Chitwood

“Dad told us to go into the hallway. And Granny told me he put his arms around us and then he prayed,” Bryce said. “I didn’t know what was going on. I figured I was the first one to head out. I couldn’t get a hold of him long enough. I was out first.”

A neighbor called Linda and told her the house had been hit. Friends found the family of four hours later in a pasture about 150 yards from where the house once stood.

“He found Jeremy first and he was already cold, and Emma was,” Linda said, “and Bryce’s mom was warm. Then when he touched Bryce, he made a sound.”

Bryce Ferguson being treated for his injuries at Children’s Hospital in Birmingham. (Courtesy: Linda Chitwood)

First responders stopped her from reaching the destruction.

“I said, ‘my son is dead, but I need to see if I can go find my grandkids,'” she said.

Linda’s granddaughter, 6-year-old Emma Ferguson, died instantly, so did her 34-year-old son, Jeremy, and his wife, 32-year-old Tawnya Sturgeon Ferguson. Bryce was barely holding on.

He was taken to Children’s Hospital in Birmingham. Linda was told he would not survive because of his extensive brain damage and other injuries.

“His arm was broke. His collar bone was broke,” she said, “He had a stob in his back about that big around, a big hole. And he was cut up with barbed wire all over.”

Machines were breathing for him. She remembers a conversation with a doctor.

“On the fifth day, he said, ‘you need to go home and bury your family and I’ll keep him alive until you get back,’” she recalled.

When doctors unplugged that life-saving equipment, Bryce fought and lived.

“I was praising God,” Linda said. “I just knew all these prayers that these people had prayed for Bryce, and I had sat by his bed and prayed every day.”

A decade later, the two still grieve for loved ones lost that day, especially Bryce.

“He’s just had a rough time accepting it and not being able to comprehend what’s really happened,” she said, “So, it’s been rough years for him.”

With the help of doctors and therapists, Bryce is working to get back what he lost to his brain injury. School presented challenges, but he graduated from Ider High School last year. He hopes to be able to work one day. Meanwhile, the two continue to lean on each other.

“We just love each other,” Linda said. “We have to fight for each other and it’s been a rough road.”

They take care of one another, too. Bryce said his dad told him to do that when he was in a coma.

“I wasn’t awake yet,” Bryce said, “I don’t know how he told me, but I remember what he said. And I told it to Granny. I said, ‘Dad told me to protect you, Granny.’”

Linda is now more like a mom to Bryce.

“That’s how I love him, and I know that’s what my son would want,” she said.

Emma, Jeremy, Tawny and Bryce Ferguson (Courtesy: Linda Chitwood)

They are survivors.

“We are,” she said, “with God’s help and all the people around us. You know, all the neighbors and churches have helped us. Now, we just go day-by-day and just make it the best way we can and if Bryce has a problem, we try to work through it or if I’m having a problem, he tries to help me work through that. That’s just the way it is for us now.”

They hope by sharing their story, people will see not only what a tornado can take from you, but also what love can give you.

“If something does happen to their family that they have some hope by seeing Bryce,” Linda said. “If something happens to a child and he lives through it, that he can get through all this. And he can get it all worked out in his mind if he’s got somebody that loves him. I just want to give them some hope.”

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